A survey released two weeks ago reveals that two-thirds of young Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 consider Jews – all Jews – an oppressor class. While these numbers must be seen in the context of the country’s diet of misinformation and the decline of education, there is no denying that the war in Gaza has provoked, within weeks, the greatest upheaval seen in American universities since the Vietnam War.
But the comparison, for now, comes down to the scale of the unrest, not the political profile of the protests or the protesters. The conflict in Vietnam produced, in the second half of the 1960s, the greatest union of the student left under the legendary SDS (acronym for the group Students for a Democratic Society). It was a predominantly white university population, unlike the one that supports the Palestinian cause today, with a significant leadership of blacks and Latinos.
If the SDS anti-war movement was against a military adventure that killed 58,000 Americans, when conscription was still mandatory, the bombing of Gaza has funding and support from Washington.
Condemning a war in Southeast Asia seen as a sign of imperialist arrogance was a less nuanced moral cause than the current conflict between Israel and Hamas, which began with a Dantesque terrorist attack in the name of the Palestinians. Progressive Jews in the US watch helplessly as students embrace a wave of anti-Semitism that does not distinguish Binyamin Netanyahu from millions of Jews. At the same time, there is a repressive impulse that was not seen in the protests against the Vietnam War. The pro-Palestinian discourse is being crushed with an authoritarianism whose impunity will affect the debate of ideas in universities. Lectures are cancelled, writers are silenced, critics of the intense bombing are fired in a supposed and absurd argument that there is no acceptable limit to the number of civilians killed to avenge the Hamas attack on October 7th.
A philosopher and academic at Princeton University argues that anti-Semitism cannot be fought with censorship or new inclusion bureaucracies. Professor Robert Peter George points to a monoculture in universities that leads students to settle into orthodoxies while expecting to be protected from any dissenting perspective.
In 2018, I met again the main leader of SDS, sociologist Todd Gitlin, who passed away last year, to talk about the 50th anniversary of 1968, the violent year he had analyzed in books. In the midst of the Trump presidency, Gitlin was disenchanted with the ability of young Americans to mobilize and pointed out two distinctions between the students he led and the generation that resisted Trumpism. In 1968, he recalled, young people believed in American democracy’s ability to regenerate itself. And he admitted that there was an almost naive faith in the unified aspiration for social justice. Young people today, Gitlin said, seem more interested in occupying islands and building fortifications around them.
But there is a possible and worrying similarity between 1968 and 2023. Disgust with Vietnam drove young voters away from the polls and a difference of just 88,000 votes in 4 states gave Richard Nixon victory. Polls today show that young people are outraged by Joe Biden’s support for Israel. Will they stay home and help elect Donald Trump?
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